I have rewritten this post many, many times over the past few months. I originally wrote it as a companion to Our Idolatry of Marriage, but have had more trouble getting to that point of what I actually want to communicate. In an effort to keep the post as personally connected to my voice and my purpose as possible, I finally decided to write it as a letter to a dear (but completely fictional) friend. Here it is!
Thank you so much for your e-mail and for sharing with me some of the ways your marriage has changed you and challenged you to grow. I am glad you are already able to see how God is using your marriage to work in your life and that you and your spouse are so open to His leading.
After reading your e-mail, something you said keeps coming back to me, and I wanted to discuss it further with you. You mentioned that, having grown and changed as a result of your marriage, it is difficult for you to connect with your single friends.
Again, I appreciate you being honest with me, and am glad that you can see and are excited about your new opportunities to grow. I know you did not mean your statement to be in reference to me, but I wanted to tell you how it sounded to me.
As you know, I am single, and if I ever marry, it is quite far in the future. Your words about maturing as a result of marriage probably struck a chord with me because, in the past, I have heard similar thoughts from others (particularly young pastors). I continue to sense an underlying assumption that marriage has some kind of exclusive maturing power that it is impossible for me (or other single people) to “benefit” from unless I marry. This kind of reasoning implies a generalization that all married people are mature and all single people are immature.
Because I have been doing a bit of thinking on the topic, I’d like to share my thoughts with you. I do believe there are certain factors that tend to encourage growth, and if those are present in marriage, they will encourage growth. However, those factors occur in many contexts, not just in marriage. Otherwise, it would be true that only married people are mature and all single people are not. In reality, there are people all across the maturity spectrum—married, single, and in between.
I want to tell you my ideas about what these maturity-encouraging factors are. I hope it spurs further discussion and encourages us both to seek growth in our individual contexts.
I think the first factor would have to be a person’s desire to grow. To me, this factor is the main reason why I can’t believe marriage is guaranteed to mature a person. We’re all self-centered people, but people who have no desire to overcome that self-centeredness aren’t going to suddenly find that desire because they have a ring on their finger. Regardless of marital status, people who are moving towards maturity will probably continue on that path towards maturity. When people are not moving towards maturity, they will probably also continue on their path away from maturity. Important steps towards maturity usually happen when there is a desire to consider others’ needs and learn to graciously communicate their own needs. I believe all of the following factors hinge on this first factor.
One of those maturity-influencing factors is we all grow as we age and have new experiences. I think most people would say they feel wiser and/or more mature each year as they develop both biologically and as the result of their experiences. Obviously, we all continue to age. Some aspects of a married person’s experience and a single person’s experience are different, but experiences grow us both. We need to encourage one another to seek experiences that challenge us and keep us from remaining stagnant.
My guess is this next factor most easily lends itself to the conclusion that marriage causes maturity: we grow when we are in close relationship and when we take on responsibility. Maybe for some people, marriage is the first time they have been in a close relationship with another person and/or have had someone else depend on them. I’m not sure, but that may be a reflection of our culture. At any rate, I would hope we would encourage those pursuing marriage to seek and experience refining relationships and situations of responsibility before taking on a life partner.
As a personal example of a relationship that has changed me, you know I lived with my best friend for six years. We played and fought like crazy. We probably could have fatally wounded our friendship at several points, but we were determined to work past our own prides, try to take the other’s perspective, and to accept our differences even when we couldn’t understand them. Her presence in my life the past almost-ten years has probably been the single most important factor that God has used to shape me and to express His love towards me.
There’s one last factor I am trying to put into words. It has to do with being aware of obstacles to maturity so that we can limit their impact. There are some obstacles to growth that seem relatively specific to marriage or to singleness. For example, Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 7: 32-35 that marriage makes spiritual growth more difficult, as a married person’s focus is divided between pleasing God and pleasing their spouse. Additionally, being married can play an insulating function for some people. Because married people have a person (and maybe a family) that they are always around, there’s not as much reason (or time) to seek out other types of people who challenge their way of thinking and living.
I think this can happen for single people, too, more in the sense they can withdraw into themselves and isolate themselves from being affected by others’ ideas. Single people can also be so focused on “what’s next”—in terms of relationship, career, or what have you—that they don’t take advantage of the situation they are already in. All of that to say, just as we are all exposed to conditions that can cause growth, we’re also all exposed to obstacles that can inhibit growth.
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts as they are now. I know my list is far from all-encompassing, and it will probably change as *I* learn and grow. I hope we can continue this conversation. Maybe it will be an impetus for growth in us both!